Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam
5th Nov 2012
The winner of the Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize in 2011, Nadzam’s move from poetry and short stories into a longer form cements the arrival of a remarkable new voice in American fiction.
Lamb tells the story of David Lamb, a middle-aged man whose life is a pitiful, mundane tragedy: his marriage has failed, and he’s facing difficulties at work due to a destructive affair with a beautiful young colleague, Linnie.
The novel opens with a dispiriting scene where David visits his elderly father, living in squalor and loneliness. It is like a glimpse into his own future.
So when he sees a young, skinny, misfit of a girl, Tommie being bullied by her classmates, he decides to do what he can to both to protect her from, or prepare her for, the cruelties that the world will in all likelihood inflict on her.
He treats her to nice meals, takes her out to the mountains, tells her stories, and begins to live again through her vulnerable innocence.
They dream of escaping, and eventually they do, heading off on a road trip to David’s remote mountain cabin, without the knowledge or permission of any of Tommie’s family or friends.
We know it’s an abduction, but within Lamb’s logic, it’s a much-needed holiday – the adventure of Tommie’s lifetime.
The relationship between David and Tommie is clearly unhealthy for both of them – and throughout, we know that it will only get more so, meaning the reading experience is one of growing foreboding and dread that grows with each meal, each new motel room, each night.
Yet Nadzam’s portrayal of David and his motives is never simple or easy to categorise. He genuinely believes that he is acting in Tommie’s best interest, saving her from something, giving her a choice over all that they do together, and empowering her. It is grotesque, but fascinating, to witness.
Nadzam’s prose is clean, stark and beautiful, stripped back and yet rich. Her narration is tightly controlled, and itself disquieting. Who is telling us this story, and why do they refer to David as ‘our guy’?
Whose side are we meant to be on here? When you step back from the text you know you should know the answers. When you’re reading it, such is the power of Nadzam’s imagination that you almost feel that you don’t.
This is a disturbing novel and a hauntingly beautiful one, uncompromising it its portrayal of how easy it can be to justify what should be unjustifiable.
Recommended for: Those who like their books to make them uncomfortable, manipulate them, and challenge their most deep-seated beliefs
Other recommended reading: The obvious comparison here must be with Nabokov’s Lolita. A selection of Nadzam’s other writing is also available online, and is well worth a look.